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Cast Away is a good movie that wants to be much better. While director Robert Zemeckis's earlier film Contact achieved a kind of mainstream spiritual significance, Cast Away falls just short of that goal. That may explain why the film's most emotionally powerful scene involves the loss of an inanimate object, even as it presents a heart-rending dilemma in its very human final act.
It's three movies in one, beginning when punctuality-obsessed Federal Express systems engineer Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) departs on Christmas Eve to escort an ill-fated flight of FedEx packages. Following a mid-Pacific plane crash, movie number two chronicles Chuck's four-year survival on a remote island, totally alone save for a Wilson volleyball (aptly named "Wilson") that becomes Chuck's closest "friend." Movie number three leads up to Chuck's rescue and an awkward encounter with his ex-girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt, in a thankless role), for whom Chuck has seemingly risen from the grave. It's fascinating to witness Chuck's emerging survival skills, and Hanks's remarkable physical transformation is matched by his finely tuned performance. With slow, rhythmic camera moves and brilliant use of sound, Zemeckis wisely avoids the postcard prettiness of The Black Stallion and The Blue Lagoon to emphasize the harshness of Chuck's ascetic solitude, and this stylistic restraint allows Cast Away to resonate more than one might expect. Even the final scene--which feels like a crowd-pleasing compromise--offers hope without shoving it down our throats. You may not feel the emotional rush that you're meant to feel, but Cast Away remains a respectable effort.